Culture, Bon_Appetit

Culture, Bon_Appetit

In Gentrifying Atlanta, Black-Owned Food Businesses Are Banding Together to Survive—and Thrive

Keitra Bates lost her restaurant due to a rent hike. Now she’s fighting to protect other Black entrepreneurs from the same fate.

2/23/2021 5:04:00 PM

Keitra Bates lost her restaurant due to a rent hike. Now she’s fighting to protect other Black entrepreneurs from the same fate.

Keitra Bates lost her restaurant due to a rent hike. Now she’s fighting to protect other Black entrepreneurs from the same fate.

, an Atlanta-based social enterprise focused on community-led real estate development, concurs: “The people making products out of their homes or cars are also the people who might not otherwise have the means to do it in the most institutionalized, professionalized way, so they’re the first to get displaced from an income and wealth standpoint,” she says. “A place like Marddy’s changes that.”

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Atlanta is by no means the only North American city in the throes of rapid displacement. According to a 2019reportpublished by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, New York City, Los Angeles, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, San Diego, and Chicago account for nearly half of the country’s gentrification. The patterns of West End mirror those of these other major cities, where shifting populations (namely, wealthy people moving into poorer urban areas)

disproportionately displaceBlack and Latino residents.This makes Bates’ work to preserve West End’s cultural legacy that much more powerful, Iyengar says. “Yes, there’s the physical displacement of Black people that happens with gentrification. But because of that, there’s also cultural erasure, where the Black-owned restaurant is replaced by the brewery or some other culturally white place.”

In 2017, at the West End’s southern border, the Atlanta branch of Dallas-based company Stream Realty opened a 23-acre mixed use property called the Lee+White Food and Beverage District. Here, you’ll find a collection of breweries, a distillery, a kombucha bar, and shops selling gelato and artisanal pickles. Its

websitemakes much of “supporting local businesses” and “growing community.” Yet soon after the opening, when I asked co-managing partner Ben Hautt if any of the businesses are owned by Black people, he paused so long I thought the line had gone dead. “No,” he finally said.

“I call it bro-based gentrification. Nothing is meant for the people there already. It’s meant for the people who arecoming.”The property has since been sold to a different firm, Ackerman & Co., but the demographics remain much the same.King Williams, an Atlanta-based journalist and documentarian who has been studying the effects of gentrification on the city for more than a decade, has his own name for this particular phenomenon. “I call it bro-based gentrification,” he tells me. Those breweries and restaurants geared toward “replicating that college feel” that mostly white, educated newcomers enjoy. “They’re essentially frat houses,” he says. “Nothing is meant for the people there already. It’s meant for the people who are

coming.”Louis Deas, a 31-year-old Morehouse College graduate who left his nonprofit career to become a Marddy’s vendor, understands why the changes have happened but has mixed feelings about the results. Ultimately, he concludes, you can’t fight progress. But you can be strategic about keeping your cultural heritage intact. “Keitra is a business owner, but she’s still blackity-Black and she’s not going to change. I appreciate that. It helps me know what progress

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canlook like for our city.”Inspired by his grandparents and their bountiful backyard pecan tree, Marddy's vendor and Deas Nuts founder Louis Deas coats his cashews, almonds, and pecans in addictive dessert flavors like cinnamon sugar and red velvet.

Photo by Emma FishmanAdvertisementBates says intentionality is more important now than ever, “with things all the way down to paint colors as representations of our culture. Because if not, we lose visibility.” And if they lose visibility, well, there goes the neighborhood.

I found a clear example of this paradigm in two separate conversations with Bates and Hautt, describing the same strip of property along White Street, where the Lee+White development now stands. When I asked what had been there before, Hautt, the developer, replied: “We had a tire retreader; a guy selling 60 socks for $5; we had basically like a—I don’t know how to describe it, but a used junk store.” He laughed. “Basically the people that drive around on trash day and grab a bunch of stuff. That guy compiled all of it in there and then would sell the working stuff. I mean we had just a total mess. It took a long time but we cleared that out entirely.”

Asked the same question, Bates said: “There was nothing but Black businesses and warehouses here. For years, this place was where you’d go and get socks and white tees, and then one day all of a sudden you see ‘going out of business, everything must go.’ There was an importer of shea butter and black soap, things that Black people like. Gone.”

Painted on Marddy’s exterior wall is a mural by Atlanta artist Fabian Williams, who goes by the monikerOccasional Superstar. The young, wide-open faces of Bates’ son and Fabian’s daughter are surrounded by a tableau of older folks, hands cupped around their mouths like they’re telling secrets, skin painted in swirling day-glo pinks, greens, and blues. These are those ancestors, says Bates. The ones Marddy’s honors by refusing to disappear. “Our mission is to make sure we have a permanent place. That no matter how much this neighborhood changes, we never have to seek permission to exist.”

The building itself was erected in 1949 by a woman named Leila Williams, who turned it into one of the few full-service Black-owned restaurants in Atlanta at the time. For almost 40 years, Leila’s Dinette served steaming plates of fried chicken and greens to locals and icons like John Lewis and Spike Lee. After that it was a fried fish shop, and later a convenience store. “As far as I know, it has always been owned by Black people,” Bates says. “There’s a lot of power in this space. You can feel it.”

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When she was first starting out, Georgette Reynolds sold her fresh-pressed juices, wellness shots, and cleanse packages at the local gym; now, thanks to help from Marddy's, she's able to ship them all across the country.Photo by Emma FishmanAdvertisement

The building’s remodeled interior is bright and cozy: cream walls, potted palms, blonde wood shelving lined with old photos. Williams’s original lunch counter remains at the center of it all, and a painting gifted by her goddaughterCharlotte Riley Webb

hangs on the wall. Until she passed away this month, Williams herself lived in a nursing home across town; in November, Bates joined the family in celebrating her 108th birthday.Once cooks are accepted into the Marddy’s program and have completed the coursework for their food safety certificates (which Bates helps them acquire at a reduced rate), they get access to the kitchen and other resources for $15 per hour, about half the average rate for other shared kitchen spaces. The certification is an important step toward legitimizing these homegrown businesses in a commercial sense, allowing them to take on larger catering jobs and sell their food in more formal settings.

Marddy's vendors Cris Ravarre and Megan Leigh of RAVARRE+CO offer catering, meal planning, small-batch plant-based spice blends, and dehydrated fruit garnishes for making fancy cocktails at home.Photo by Emma FishmanFor Louis Deas, these practicalities were important, but it was Bates’s bold mission that ultimately drew him to Marddy’s. His company,

Deas Nuts(pronounced “deez”—get it?) was inspired by his grandparents, who used to box up pecans from a tree in their backyard and send them to family members as gifts. Marddy’s offered the affordable commercial kitchen space he was looking for—and so much more. “It’s an incubator that’s specifically tailored for food entrepreneurs, but it’s not just about the money,” he says. “Keitra empowers us to give back to the community where we live in similar ways that she herself has given back.” That’s why, as Deas expands his business model from candy-roasted nuts (red velvet pecans! cinnamon sugar cashews!) to coffee and nut milks, he’ll also factor in ways to donate a portion of his proceeds to charity.

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